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Greg Fishman Interview

Part 6

by Ed Svoboda
Greg Fishman

Ed Svoboda:
It seems as though in all things that the pendulum swings back and forth. I think we've swung from the Coltrane era on to the technical perfection whereas Getz, Zoot Sims, other people of that era even Art Pepper or Paul Desmond, Cannonball Adderley all played with a much more organic sense. You could go back and forth on Charlie Parker who was a technically amazing saxophonist but his roots were blues. On ballads you hear a different Parker so perhaps we're going to see the pendulum come back the other way. When I listen to your playing - you're playing is quite melodic, you're technically quite proficient, you have a sense of the organic moment and the soul of playing. Things seem to move you. We've talked before about chord changes and about different keys and how different keys can represent different feelings and moods and emotion. How do you get that across to students?

Greg Fishman:
I got the concept of playing in 12 keys from Joe Daley. He was a fabulous player and a legendary teacher in Chicago. I was very fortunate to have studied with him. One part of Joe's lessons would be to take three tunes that you know, like when I was learning "Moonlight in Vermont," "Days of Wine and Roses," and "Misty," and for the next week he said, "I'm going to call each tune and I'm going to pick a couple of keys and I want you to be able to play the tune in the key in which I call it - it might be F sharp it might be B. Play the melody, solo on it, then play the melody out. Keep the time. Don't mess up the time. Hit each change clearly." Joe didn't believe in play-alongs. There was never any accompaniment to play with in his lessons. He believed that you had to hear the time and the changes in your head. This was very hard. I was practicing eight hours a day, and I was in constant fear that Joe might drop me as a student because I might not meet his high expectations. Fortunately, I did make it through my lessons with Joe. Joe took his students up to a certain point, and then he'd tell them that he'd shown them what they needed to go out on their own, and start figuring things out for themselves.

Joe's approach was really a "sink or swim" type of thing. Joe was not inclined to give any long explanations of things. He was a man of few words when it came to teaching. Joe didn't think in terms of grading a student's performance in terms of how good he was for his age. In Joe's mind, you were either "makin' it," which was cool, or, if you weren't happening, you'd get this response: Joe would shake his head side to side and say, "Ain't makin' it, baby"! It made you feel terrible to hear those words, but it was a very clear and effective way of communicating the truth. My own teaching style is a bit more user friendly than Joe's. I get the point of playing in different keys across to my students in a different way than Joe did, because I allow the students to hear accompaniment when playing in the unusual keys. They can then work up to the Joe Daley method of no accompaniment. I also like to encourage my students when I hear that they're improving. I think they need that positive feedback when they've worked hard and are making progress.

My teaching style is very interactive. Everything is dependant on how I think the student is hearing the music. I think that the student needs to hear the chords while he's playing in these different keys. We'll work on something in a few keys, and we'll try to determine which keys sound bright or dark, and which ones seem to be the most flattering keys for the character of the tune. I accompany my students on piano, but I also have my students learn some basic jazz piano voicings and play through the changes to a tune in a few different keys at the piano. Rather than program a computer to comp the changes in different keys, I prefer that the students make recordings of themselves playing the changes on piano. Then they can play along with the recording. For more advanced students, I like to have them play on the changes unaccompanied, as I did for Joe, but record themselves, and then play back that recording and comp the changes on piano for their recorded improvisation. This approach seems to improve the student's accuracy when trying to remember a tune's changes.

After about two years of playing in different keys, I started to notice just how strongly the mood of a tune could change depending on the key. Another consideration regarding the keys is often simply a matter of range. I think of the saxophone as a vocalist, in that it has about a 2 ½ octave range. I usually want to put a tune in the middle of that range, but sometimes there are exceptions. For example, Getz would sometimes put something in a very high register; Sonny Rollins, on the other hand, would sometimes play things in a very low register, just for the character of the key. I like to do that. I experiment with the keys. I don't automatically reject a tune's original key, especially in the case of jazz standards like "Confirmation" or "Joy Spring." I usually leave those tunes in their given key. Standards from the Great American Songbook are more likely to be put in different keys. For example, Johnny Mandel's "Emily" is usually in the key of C. I did it in C for years but then I started working on the tune in twelve keys, and every time I got to the key of Ab, I just felt in my gut that there was a greater depth to the tune when I played it in that key. It also happens to lay very well on the horn in that key. I've learned to go with those feelings, and I've developed an instinct for which keys to do things in. I try to play tunes in the key I'm hearing in my head at the time I call the tune on the gig. It could be different on a nightly basis. Like tonight, you just came from a gig I did with guitarist/singer Paulinho Garcia - our duo, Two For Brazil. We're getting ready to do another album. We're going to do a bunch of jazz tunes by Coltrane, Monk, Dizzy, and Miles. Paulinho did the tune "All Blues" in E concert! I loved it. It's a very bright key. I played completely differently on the tune than I would have if it were in the usual key of G.

Hey, I just remembered a profound quote from one of my old teachers, Hal Galper, the great pianist and educator. This doesn't pertain to playing in 12 keys, but it does relate to playing by ear. In 1986, I was attending an Aebersold jazz camp, and Hal had just played some nice changes on a standard tune. A kid came up to Hal and said, "Hal, I love those changes, can I have them"? Hal said, "If you can hear 'em, you can have 'em." It was perfect. It was so succinct. He was saying that if you are at the point where you can hear those changes and you understand what they are - they're already yours. That exchange of words revealed a lot to me. It changed my way of thinking.

At this point we spent a moment or two making sure that the safety cassette was still going as the interview was being recorded on a PC which neither of us had a lot of faith in. This led to a discussion of technology and the pop culture of the 1940's, 1950's, and 1960's which led us to talk about old horns and equipment.

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Greg Fishman:Biography
Created: September 19, 2005.
Update: October 3, 2005
©2005, HarriRautiainen and respectiveauthors

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